An Encouraging Trend

By Deirdre McQuade

April 25, 2014

A March 2014 Pew Research Center study found that Americans’ support for the death penalty for convicted murderers is at its lowest level in three decades. In 1983, there was a significant gap between those in support of capital punishment (78%) and those against (18%). The majority supporting the death penalty has dropped to 55%, with a significant 37% opposing it. This major shift is an encouraging sign that, at least on this issue, society is shifting toward embracing the dignity of human life.

The polls do not probe into why people hold their beliefs or have changed them over time. I would like to think that, among other factors, Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on life issues, Evangelium Vitae (EV/“The Gospel of Life”) has played a significant role. In that teaching document the pope invited followers of Christ to be “unconditionally pro-life.”  Addressing the question of capital punishment, he said: “Modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform” (EV, 27).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this position in an historical context: “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.” Quoting John Paul II’s own words, the Catechism adds that today “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’” (CCC, 2267, citing Evangelium Vitae, 56).
The bishops of the United States have echoed this universal teaching of the Church in several ways, including in their 2005 statement, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, and their ongoing Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty.

Many other educational efforts, including advocacy, have helped people understand the issue more deeply. Of particular note, some courageous families of murder victims have called for an end to the use of the death penalty.  They say that it does not bring expected closure or peace in mourning the loss of their loved one, and that the answer to violence must not be found in the taking of even more life. Read “Victim Advocates Against the Death Penalty” to hear the stories of Vicki Schieber, whose daughter was raped and murdered, and of Gary Wright, one of the infamous Unabomber’s victims, among others.  Their witness is powerful and compelling.

It is fitting that the Pew study was released just before Easter and Divine Mercy Sunday. Our savior suffered a degrading form of capital punishment so that all might be redeemed: “By his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). While it’s often difficult for us to desire redemption for all people, especially for those who have caused great harm, this season calls us to follow Jesus on his own path of suffering. We are all created in the image and likeness of God, even those sentenced to death. Let us pray for the courage to defend the dignity of their lives, too.

Deirdre A. McQuade is Assistant Director for Policy & Communications at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. See the 2013-14 Respect Life Program Catalog for select resources on the death penalty. A recent CNS video featuring Deirdre McQuade’s commentary may be found on the Catholic News Service’s YouTube channel.